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Published: Tuesday, 7/7/2009

Final Seneca County courthouse pitch less than 2 weeks away

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - A development group putting together a plan to renovate Seneca County's 1884 courthouse has less than two weeks left to refine the case it will make to county commissioners.

Franklin Conaway, who heads what is now being called the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group, told commissioners yesterday that the group may need up to three hours when it makes its final presentation July 20.

He said the group will lay out its design plans for a renovated courthouse, explain the estimated cost of renovation, and outline how the county can pay for it.

That will be a critical issue.

Commissioner Dave Sauber said the unencumbered balance in the county's general fund is down to a dangerously low $400,000. Sales tax receipts - the county's primary source of revenue - are down 10 percent so far this year.

"Based on current revenues we wouldn't be able to move forward with the renovation today," said Ben Nutter, president of the board of commissioners. "We just couldn't do it. We're down a solid 14 percent in revenue, which over a $15 million budget means $2.1 million."

Mr. Conaway has promised to bring commissioners a plan to renovate the vacant building for the Common Pleas Courts and the clerk of courts at a cost equal to or less than that of demolishing it and building new. At the July 20 meeting, he said, he also plans to tell the board about other projects for downtown Tiffin that are "more likely to come to reality" if the courthouse is renovated.

Common Pleas Judge Michael Kelbley said yesterday that he and Judge Steve Shuff have met "three or four times" with architects working on the project to discuss the court's needs and go over design plans.

He declined to say what he thought of the renovation proposal, saying the judges agreed not to take a position on what is a decision for commissioners.

Commissioners said they do not anticipate making that decision on July 20.

"It's taken them a year to come up with it. It's certainly going to take some time to sort it, to go through it, and see what the appropriate course of action would be," Mr. Nutter said.

Commissioner Mike Bridinger, who has long supported saving the courthouse, said he is confident Mr. Conaway would bring the board a plan that will work.

"The knowledge behind this group is incomparable," Mr. Bridinger said. "I'm very anxious to see their plan."

Mr. Sauber said this is "the last chance" for the courthouse unless a wealthy donor or donors steps forward to pay for the renovation.

"I'm excited that we have given the 1884 courthouse the opportunity to let these professionals get together and try and come up with a solution," Mr. Sauber said. "The whole thing for me is the money. Can we afford to do it taking into consideration long-term costs for maintenance and all the other issues?"

Commissioners said that if the renovation plan is not viable, they would not move ahead with demolition of the empty courthouse until visiting Judge Charles Wittenberg renders a decision in a case the county filed in Common Pleas Court.

In January, commissioners asked the court to determine whether the county could raze the building without approval from the city of Tiffin in light of the city's Architectural Board of Review having twice rejected its application to do so.

The Ohio Preservation Alliance filed a "friend of the court" brief in the case yesterday asking that the court hold a full evidentiary hearing in the case rather than decide it based on motions filed by the city and county.

Thomas Palmer, attorney for the group, said in his brief that the court was not given enough information to decide the case, which could establish a precedent for other governmental entities.

"We know of no reported cases in Ohio where the interface between levels of state government interests have been weighed in the context of historic preservation or architectural review ordinances," he wrote.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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